“Helena, Helena, wake up! Wake up! Now!” my mother was yelling as she shook me. I rubbed my eyes, not sure if I was really awake. “Helena, now! Hurry, grab some clothes, shoes, and your blanket and pillow. Get into the bathtub”.
I realized now that I was awake. “What’s going on?”
“It’s the Germans!” she said and ran out of my room.
It was still dark outside but now I could hear the distant sounds of the attack. I grabbed my things, almost tripping over the blanket as I ran to the bathroom. My parents had already dragged Max’s mattress into the tub and Father came running in with the radio.
“We can listen as long as the electricity stays on,” he said as he set the radio down in the corner beneath the sink. At least we have an electrical outlet in the bathroom.
Mother ran in with two bottles of water, candles, matches, and some food. “Helena, get into the bathtub, under the mattress.”
The mattress was heavy but I squeezed in under it with my pillow and blanket. My parents finished grabbing the last few emergency items, sat on the bathroom floor, and closed the door. The closed door muffled the sound of the bombs, but we could hear the nonstop barrage.
Father plugged in the radio. the local news was broadcasting. The German army, with what appeared to be more than a million troops, had crossed from Germany into Poland shortly before five o’clock this morning. Our troops were ready, but the Germans were moving so quickly and with such force that our army was still stunned. We sat listening to the reports, hearing what the newsman was saying but not really processing the information. It took a while to sink in. As the morning progressed, more detailed reports were transmitted from the battlefield. Heavy casualties among the Polish troops, many tanks destroyed. Our brave soldiers are trying to rally.
Later that morning, things got a lot worse. There were large explosions not far from our building. “German bomber planes,” Father said. The walls shook and dust fell from the ceiling. Mother moved over next to Father and he put his arm around her. One of her hands was holding mine, the other was clutching a framed photo of Max. Max! I had forgotten about him. We don’t know where he was stationed. He reported for training four days ago, not long enough to write or call.
“Don’t worry,” Father said. “Max is smart. He’ll stay as safe as possible.”
“How is being smart going to help him?” Mother yelled frantically.
“It just will,” Father whispered and stroked her cheek.
It sounds as if the world is coming to an end. Two loud explosions seemed to originate from right in front of our apartment building, and the sound of shattering glass confirmed it. I think my bedroom window just shattered. We heard on the radio that the German bombers were attacking many villages, towns, and cities throughout most of the country with no attempt to bypass civilians. Reports were coming in of many buildings destroyed and many civilian casualties. Through all of this, Mother had the presence of mind to make a snack for us--milk, cereal, and fruit. “We have to keep our strength up,” she said but she wasn’t really speaking to us. After we ate, Mother pulled a blanket over Father’s head so I could get changed out of my pajamas and into some daytime clothing.
The radio signal was breaking up so Father focused on keeping us tuned in to a news station, any news station. He came across a London BBC transmission. The accounting firm he works for has clients who do business in England and France so he knows a little English and French. I took an English class two years ago. We gleaned what we could from the BBC reports and translated for Mother. The Germans had invaded Poland without any warning or declaration of war. The British are outraged. Would British Prime Minister Chamberlain live up to his promise to declare war on Germany and what would that mean for us?
“What'll happen, Father, if our troops can’t hold back the attack?”
“We’ll just have to take it one day at a time, Sweetie,” he said as he took my hand, “one day at a time.”
Father continued working the radio tuner to see if there were any new reports. Suddenly we heard, and felt, the loudest explosion of the day and the electricity went out. Mother lit a candle. She set it in a holder and placed it in the sink so it would extinguish itself and not start a fire if it was knocked over. We have enough trouble without that. Now there's nothing but the sound of the bombs. We did hear some gunshots in the street and a woman screaming but it’s too dangerous to go see what’s happening. I wondered who fired the shots because the German troops haven’t entered the city yet.
During a lull in the bombing, Father ran out to the bedroom to grab his watch. He had forgotten to take it in the rush this morning, and without a window or the radio, there's no way to know what time it is. He took a chance and ran to the window to see what’s going on in the street below. He noticed some of our neighbors also taking the opportunity to peek out.
“Michal, what did you see?”
“A lot of smoke, but it appears to be quiet for now. The window in Helena’s bedroom is broken, glass everywhere. We’ll have to use cardboard tomorrow to cover it.” He turned back toward us. “Zofia, did you grab a lantern this morning?”
“Oh, no, I forgot. I just grabbed the candles.”
Father went back out again to get the lantern. While things are quiet, he checked on the Wozniaks next door. They’re an elderly couple whose two sons had moved to America. They have no other family here in Poland. They’re very nice people, and all of the building tenants have sort of adopted them as grandparents. Mr. Wozniak thanked Father for checking, and said they’re both okay. Having lived through a German attack before, the Wozniaks had also prepared over the past few weeks and are hiding in their bathroom bunker just like we are.
Suddenly the bombing started again, and Father ran back to the bathroom. He set the lamp aside for now because there was a little bit of daylight peaking beneath the door in addition to the candlelight. We should probably have saved the candle, but being this dark with all of the commotion would have been too scary. We heard three explosions very close to the building and we had to cover our heads and faces from the dust falling from the ceiling. I don’t think they hit the building.
Mother wanted to get to the telephone to call her father's neighbor. Her father lives alone and doesn’t have a telephone. Father stopped her. “Let’s wait a while. Maybe there will be another break in the attack.”
The bombing must have stopped for a while because I had dozed off. My mother wasn’t in the room when I woke. “Where's Mother?” I asked.
“She tried to make some telephone calls to see if the family is safe, but the there isn't any service. While it’s quiet, she's getting milk and food from the ice box so we can have some dinner. The food will spoil before long, so we might as well eat it.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
“A little after seven o'clock. It’s beginning to get dark. Maybe we’ll get lucky and have a quiet night.”
We all had trouble sleeping that first night. The sounds of battle were off in the distance, but we knew the local bombing could begin at any moment. We spent the night in our little bunker. I was able to read a little before Mother said that we should try to get some sleep and blew out the candle. Just before dawn the bombing began again. We could hear the planes flying in low as they shot up the streets. I wondered what they were shooting at because almost everyone was hiding indoors.
We spent the day reading, playing cards, telling stories, doing anything to distract us from what was happening outside. What little fruit and vegetables we had were finished by the end of the day. All we had to drink was water because the last of the milk had already gone bad and had to be poured down the sink. As the day came to an end, I was trying to figure out why I felt tired. I had barely moved all day.
We were awakened again the next morning by another bombing raid. Father thought it sounded like they were bombing the train station. The Germans would want to cut off all methods of transportation available to the Polish army. The electricity was back, though, so Mother turned on the radio. Our soldiers are winning some small battles, but for the most part are being driven back. After each retreat the soldiers rally and attempt to push forward again. The big news was that England and France had declared war on Germany.
“Thanks goodness!” Mother exclaimed. “Now we’ll get some help. I knew our allies wouldn’t forget about us.”
“I don’t know Zofia. England and France are a long way away. They might be able to distract the German forces by attacking them on Germany’s western borders, but their planes can’t reach Poland, and their ships won’t be able to get past the German navy. I’m sure they’ll do what they can. Hitler has already conquered too many territories.”
“If Hitler hates the Jews why would he want to conquer a country with such a large Jewish population? “ I asked.
“That’s a good question”, Father replied. “We’ve heard some rumors about the treatment of Jews in Germany over the past few years. I don’t know what will happen to the Jews here, but I’m more concerned for the Poles. Again, we’ll just have to take it one day at a time.”
“We learned in school that the Nazis were imprisoning and killing Jews for no reason other than their being Jewish. My history teacher, Mr. Zaleski, said that he wished someone would do that here and force the Jews out of Poland.”
“He said that in class?” Father exclaimed. “He shouldn’t be expressing personal opinions in class.”
“Father, what is your opinion of the Jews?”
“Why are we talking about this?” Mother asked. “Helena is too young to have to deal with these issues.”
“Mother, I’m sixteen. I’m not stupid, I know some of what’s going on in the world.”
“She’s right,” Father said. “This is something we all have to deal with, especially now. To answer your question, I don’t know any Jews well enough to really have an opinion. They tend to keep to themselves. When I see them in a café or market they seem to be polite and well dressed. I have heard that the Jews in that slums on the east side of town are very poor though, living in filth and squalor. They don’t come into the center of town, so I’ve never encountered them.”
“It’s good that they keep to themselves,” Mother added. “They make me nervous.”
“Why do they make you nervous?” I asked.
“They just do. When I was young, my parents always told me to avoid them because they were dirty and would try to cheat me out of my money.”
“But that girl I saw in the Jewish market seemed polite.”
“I’ve had enough of this conversation,” Mother said. “Why are we sitting here talking about Jews? We have more important things to worry about. It’s quiet now, so I think I’ll go stretch my legs.”
Father and I took the opportunity to clean up the broken glass in my bedroom. We tore up one of the extra cardboard boxes we had and wedged the pieces into the window to seal it off. Then we pushed my armoire in front of the window. He decided that placing the large furniture in front of all of the windows was good idea to block any flying glass and other debris.
While he went about doing that, I took the jumped at the chance to take a bath. I feel filthy after three days. There isn’t any hot water, so it wasn’t very enjoyable, but at least I feel clean. After Mother set out lunch on the kitchen table, she also jumped in the tub for a quick bath. I think Father’s bath was the shortest of the three. Hopefully the electricity will stay on long enough for us to have hot water.
We invited the Wozniaks over for tea after lunch. It’s nice to do something normal. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. The bombing began again. The Wozniaks rushed back to their apartment and we hunkered down again.
The next morning Mother suggested I use the quiet periods to study a little. There’s no way of knowing when school will be back in session. I didn’t mind, it was a nice distraction from what was going on outside.
And so began our routine for the next week or so. Hiding during the bombings, sleeping in the bathroom, trying to distract ourselves from thoughts of what the future might hold, and using the quiet moments to at least pretend that life was normal. And then one morning there was a change. We could still hear the sounds of war in the distance but there was a different sound in the city.
“Tanks,” Father said. They were coming in from the west so either the Polish army is retreating or the German army is moving into the city.
We went out into the sitting room and moved the bookcase away from the window but we couldn’t see anything. We could hear the tanks and the sounds of what seemed like thousands of marching boots.
“I’m going outside,” Father said.
“No, it’s not safe.”
“Zofia, we have to know what’s going on.”
“I want to come with you, Father.”
“No,” Mother insisted, “definitely not.”
“We should all go. Maybe while we’re out we can check in on the family. If it is the Germans, we mustn’t draw attention to ourselves. Promise me, Zofia and Helena, if anything happens and I tell you to run back home, you'll run. Okay?”
Many of our neighbors were also coming out of their hiding places, curious about whatever changes were taking place. Everyone quietly nodded and waved, or shook hands. There’s a nice breeze blowing. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I reopened my eyes to see Wanda standing directly in front of me. We hugged and held hands as our families made their way toward the city center. A building on the corner was partially blown away. Father asked a man sitting on the front steps if anyone was hurt. The man said that an elderly gentleman who lived alone was killed. They’ve been trying to contact his son, but with the telephones out of service, it’s difficult.
As we approached the park and city hall the sounds grew louder. I heard many vehicles and, again, the sounds of soldiers marching. As the crowd began to thicken, Father grabbed Mother’s hand and she grabbed mine.
“Remember what I told you." Father said. "If I say run, you run.” We both nodded.
I could now see that it is the Germans. They look so confident. The people lining the streets were whispering nervously among themselves, eyes darting around trying to absorb this new situation. I had to stand on my tiptoes so I could see. The officers are riding in jeeps, looking like they had conquered the world instead of just our little piece of it. Most of the other soldiers look so young, Max’s age. Max. I hadn’t thought of him much the last few days. I said a little prayer for his safe return.
Suddenly a man carrying a pipe rushed out into the open toward one of the jeeps, taking swings at both the vehicle and its occupants. A nearby soldier immediately ran over and bashed him in the face with the butt of his rifle. After the man fell to the ground, one of the officers hopped from his jeep, unfastened his holster as he walked over to the man, removed his gun from the holster, shot the already bleeding man in the head, and calmly walked back to the jeep.
The crowd was startled. Women screamed, some fainted. Some started to run. Father clutched my mother and me so we wouldn’t get dragged off by the press of the crowd. We were in shock. I can’t believe what we had just witnessed. The German officer was so indifferent, like he was swatting a fly, not killing a man. No one made a move to remove the dead body from the street, probably fearing what might happen if they did.
The procession stopped in front of city hall, which was on the far side of the square. The building had suffered some superficial damage but is still one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The officers exited their vehicles and entered the building followed by a few dozen soldiers, guns at the ready. After a moment or two we heard gunfire inside the building. Three Polish men came running out the front door and were shot on the steps. Father clutched us tighter and led us back a few steps, closer to a nearby building. We know what’s happening is terrible but we just couldn’t turn our backs on it. In the meantime, two German soldiers walked over to the cowering crowd and grabbed two men to remove the dead body from the street. “Move that filthy Pole from the street!” we heard one soldier shout. The body was pulled onto the sidewalk and one of the men draped his jacket over it. Some of the people who had left after the first shots were fired had slowly filtered back to see what was going on.
“Michal, shouldn’t we go check on the family?”
“Michal!” she said again, shaking him out of his daze.
“Uh, yes, yes, let’s do that. We’ll stop by your father’s apartment first. We have to go around the back way since we can’t get through the square. Here,” he said, taking hold of her hand and putting an arm around my shoulders. “Let’s go.”
We walked along in silence.. I heard the roar of trucks but couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. Suddenly, as we approached an intersection, Father suddenly pulled us back. A convoy of trucks was speeding down the narrow street without any regard for pedestrians. The trucks were loaded with boxes and furniture. After they passed we peeked around the corner of the building to see them approaching the point where the street reached the town square. People scattered to avoid being run down. Father raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and we continued walking.
When we turned onto the street where my grandfather lived, we saw that the front of his building had been damaged during the attack. Father ran up to the building, climbed over the rubble, and rushed up the stairs. He was pounding on the door as Mother and I made our way up to the second floor. No answer. A neighbor opened her door to see about the commotion and told us that Nicholas was fine. The damage to the building was only the facade, no one had been injured. My grandfather had walked to the town square to see what was happening. Mother leaned back against the wall and took a deep breath to calm herself. “Thank you. We’ll head over that way to find him.”
Just as we got back down to the street I saw Grandpa Nick walking towards us. I jumped over the rubble and ran to give him a big hug. “Grandpa Nick! Are you alright? We were worried about you.”
“Yes, yes dear, I’m fine. This isn’t the first war I’ve lived through,” he said with a smile.
Mother ran over to envelope him in her arms. Father followed, shaking his hand and clutching his arm.
“How are all of you?” Grandpa asked. “I didn’t think it was safe to venture out until today, and after what I just saw on the square, I’m still not sure.”
“We’re fine. This is our first day out too. We saw that man shot on the square,” Mother said. “It was horrible.”
“Just before I turned to walk home I saw the soldiers grabbing men from the crowd near the city hall to unload the trucks,” Grandpa said. “One man resisted and they bashed him in the head with the butt of a rifle.”
“Oh my goodness!” Mother said. “We should check on everyone else and then get home. Papa, do you want to come with us to Jozef’s house?
“No, I need a break. I think I’ll just go make some tea and take a nap.”
“We’ll make sure you get upstairs alright. Michal and Helena, clear away some of that debris on the front steps.”
Father and I cleared a path. As we started, I looked back at my grandfather. He looks tired. For the first couple of months after my Grandma Greta died, he seemed fine, just sad. Over the past few months, though, he seems to have aged a lot. He’s only fifty-eight years old and is already walking with a cane. He’s also thinner and appears to be shorter.
Mother helped him up the front steps and then we all went up to the second floor. She made tea for him, which he took over to his arm chair. She lovingly placed a blanket over his legs. He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. Mother is his only child here in Poland. Her younger brother, Alex, moved to London several years ago. There had been two younger siblings, a boy and a girl, but both died in 1918 during the influenza epidemic. Mother kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t overdo it,” she said. “We’ll see you soon.”
We continued walking toward Uncle Jozef’s house. Grandpa Andrej and Grandma Em live around the corner so we knew they would probably be there too. We passed by the street where Father’s accounting firm is located. “Wait,” he said, “let’s just go see if anyone is there.” The door was unlocked so we went in.
“Hello, is someone here?”
“Michal!” his boss yelled as he descended the stairs. “It’s good to see that you and your family are safe. My family is fine, just a little damage to the building we live in but thankfully no injuries. We should try to get back to work tomorrow. Can you come in?”
“If things are quiet, I’ll try to make it,” Father said. “It'll feel good to get back to normal.”
“Yes, normal,” Mother added.
Father looked worried as we turned on to Uncle Jozef’s street. The first two houses on the corner were destroyed by a bomb strike. We walked faster, anxious to see that our loved ones were safe. Aside from a broken window, Uncle Jozef’s house appeared to be undamaged. We barged into the house without even knocking.
“Hello!” Father shouted.
“Jozef, it’s Michal, Zofia, and Helena!” Rose shouted as she ran towards us.
Mother and Aunt Rose were both crying as they hugged each other. Father and Jozef squeezed each other so hard I thought one of them would burst. Everyone kept hugging. Little Viktor popped his head into the room to see what was going on. “Hi Viktor,” I said and he ran back into his room.
“Are Mama and Papa here?” my father asked Jozef.
“They just left to go back to their apartment. They’re both fine.”
“Good. We’ll stop by on the way home.”
“Did you go down to the square?” Jozef asked.
“Yes, we were there for a while and saw some of the terrible things that happened. I don’t know how worried we should be. Maybe it was all just a show to scare us.”
“I hope so. I don’t know what to make of it either.”
“Have you heard from Max?"
“Not yet. Maybe now that the fighting is finished he’ll be able to contact us.”
Mother and Aunt Rose had moved their crying over to the sofa, but both seemed to be calmer now. We went over to sit with them. It feels good to be with family again. Jozef mentioned that he had gone over to his law office yesterday. He found a couple of windows that need to be patched up. He stopped by again earlier today and a couple of his employees were there. They agreed to come back to work tomorrow if things are quiet. “It’ll be nice to get back to normal,” he said. There was that word again, “normal”.
I went to go play with Viktor for a few minutes while Uncle Jozef and Father talked. Mother and Aunt Rose went in to the kitchen to discuss supplies, who has what, who doesn’t have enough of something, and what could be traded between them. All Viktor wanted to do was smash his toy cars together. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him quiet. It must be tough for a little boy who doesn’t really understand what’s happening to his world. I’m sixteen and barely understand it. “Can I play too?” I asked and Viktor handed me one of the cars. We sat there smashing the cars into each other.
“Helena,” Mother called. “It’s time to leave. We still need to stop by Grandma Em’s apartment.” Everyone hugged and kissed again, and we all promised to be careful. More people were out on the streets now that the initial curiosity about the Germans had passed. We walked around the corner to Grandma Em’s apartment. She was so excited to see us at the door. She hugged me tightly. “Grandma, that’s enough. I can’t breathe.” She laughed and hugged me again anyway.
“Papa, good to see you,” Father said to Grandpa Andrej as he gave him a hug.
“Good. Everyone is safe,” Grandma Em said.
“Zofia, how is your father?”
“We just saw him and he’s fine, just tired.”
“Good. Come in. Sit down. Who wants a snack? It’s not much of a snack, just crackers and tea, but they’re good crackers.”
We were so caught up in the events of the day that we had missed lunch so we sat for a little while. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I saw the crackers.
Just as we were getting ready to leave we heard the sound of gunfire coming from the town square. We decided that it was better to stay a little longer. There’s still plenty of daylight remaining.
“I wish we could listen to the radio,” Grandma Em said, trying to distract us. “The Germans will need electricity, so maybe they’ll turn it on for the entire city. We have no idea what's going on outside our little part of the world. Newspapers would be nice, too.”
Everyone nodded in agreement, but we could still hear the gunfire outside, and the tension in the room was obvious. “Why don’t we play some cards? Gin maybe?” said Grandma Em as she went to the china closet to find a deck. I could tell that she’s frightened too but she would never admit it. Grandma Em is a strong woman. Her parents and two younger sisters were killed when she was only ten years old. Em had gone down to the corner newsstand to buy a newspaper for her father, and, while she was out, the boiler in the basement of their apartment building exploded. Her family lived on the first floor and they had the bad luck to be sitting in the room directly above the boiler. She moved in with her aunt and uncle but they didn’t treat her well. So when she was sixteen, she dropped out of school and ran away from home. Em worked whatever jobs she could find and became friends with Grandpa Andrej’s sister. That’s how Em and Andrej met. The rest, as Grandma Em likes to say, is history.
We all pretended to enjoy the card game to make Grandma Em feel better. After an hour or so, the gunfire had stopped and Father decided it was time to go home. Grandma Em squeezed the stuffing out of me again. That’s okay. She needs the hug as much as I do. “Stay safe,” everyone said.
Father stepped out of the front door of the building first to make sure it was clear. Then we walked as quickly as we could while keeping an eye out for any trouble. The streets are mostly empty now. I was able to glance up one street to see that the crowds around the square had dispersed. It looks like army tents have been erected in the park. We heard more gunfire from farther away, maybe beyond city hall, and Father spurred us on. I was relieved when we arrived home. Mother immediately set to making soup for dinner. I went to my room to read for a little while but my thoughts kept drifting off. What will tomorrow bring?